The Rise of the Quiet Luxurians

Spending gobs of money to look anonymously chic.

 In a last-ditch attempt to escape the guillotine, the top 1 percent are resorting to ever more devious tactics. First and foremost, they have adopted a bizarrely nondescript way of dressing: It’s spare simplicity with foncy labels; it’s a white gold Rolex that resembles a plain old tin Timex; it’s L.L.Bean-style basics with haute-couture prices. Simply put: The 1 percent are occupying Hermès (the luxury retailer most synonymous with understated extravagance).

Bernie Maddof and a Brunello Cucinelli navy quilted jacket.
Left: Bernie Madoff in a “dreary quilted jacket,” before his arrest. Right: a Brunello Cucinelli navy quilted jacket made with a luxurious touch of cashmere.

Photograph of Bernard Madoff by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images.

This breathy, low-key mode of camouflage is described by its proponents as “quiet luxury.” It speaks in a modulated voice, and only to fellow Quiet Luxurians. It’s an Upper East Side/Mayfair/Palm Beach kind of a thing. It’s not a Gowanus Canal kind of a thing, or, God forbid, a Zuccotti Park thing. No Zuccotti denizen would be capable of decoding the subtle nuances of this particular style. That’s how deathly quiet it is.

Last week I clocked a Quiet Luxurian boarding a plane for Florida the day before Thanksgiving. To the untrained eye, her sensible and discreetly accessorized slacks ‘n’ sweater ensemble rendered her all but invisible. Her monochromatic, tawny, fawny outfit was severely ascetic and suggested a raging antipathy toward self-indulgent glamour. And yet… My estimate of the total cost of her outfit, including T. Anthony nylon tote, Hermès purse, Tod’s drivers, and gold bangle? A quiet 25 grand.

Personally speaking, I have always preferred noisy luxury. You know where you are with a bit of trashy nouveau-richesse. If I won the lottery, I would be unable to restrain myself from making all kinds of preposterous purchases, a canary yellow fur chubby with a matching Corvette being atop the list. But I am not the 1 percent. I am just a simple working class immigrant from a British crap town.

So who are the proponents? Let’s name names. Ruth Madoff was, in many ways, the primordial muck from which the Quiet Luxurians emerged. She spent years, and many thousands of dollars, pursuing a quietly luxurious mode of dressing. With her Belgian loafers, layers of muted cashmere and those dreary quilted jackets—remember Bernie was sporting the male version, accessorized with a baseball cap, during the famous paparazzi confrontation outside his apartment?—Ruth’s goal was clearly to look as little as possible like a long-nailed, tarty Long Island arriviste and as much as possible as though she lived in the English countryside and drove a Range Rover. She was the un-Linda Richman. All was revealed when Ruth was interviewed on 60 Minutes a couple of weeks back. As soon as she opened her gob, the real kawfee-tawking-lady-behind-the-vicuña emerged. Ruth’s desire to relinquish her working-class roots and adopt an old money, Ralph Lauren-ish personal style—a pal of mine calls it “the process of degreasing”—reflects a time-honored tradition: It’s new money aping old. Problem is, girlfriend was degreasing her closet with other people’s shekels.

As the 1 percenters run for cover, the world of quiet luxury is enjoying the biggest growth spurt in its history. I’m talking not just Hermès, but sportswear by Brunello Cuccinelli, suits by Brioni, Isaia and Kiton, handmade shoes by Lobb, and Delvaux or Valextra handbags. There is a feverish and growing appreciation for exquisite, hand-crafted clothing and accessories that subtly shimmer with excellence rather than blaring their belogoed names. This puts we fashionistas in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, we enthusiastically support the causes that are synonymous with Occupy. Yet our lives and our incomes are dependent on the ability of the top 1 percent to plonk down absurd amounts of cash for both quiet and noisy luxury designer goods. We’re sort of like Madame Defarge, knitting and cackling at the revolutionary spectacle, but, unlike Madame D., we are secretly shilling our handicrafts to the doomed elite. Quelle horreur!

Where will it all end? Will the Occupiers become hip to the jive? What happens when they learn to recognize the signifiers of quiet luxury? I have a suggestion: To avoid future detection, the superrich should regrease, logo up, bedazzle, and maybe even vajazzle. Liberté! Egalité! Vulgaritay!